Republican Bill Allows for Surgically Removing Wild Horses' Ovaries to Cull Population

Wild horses roam free in Milford, Utah, on May 31, 2017. The Bureau of Land Management, state officials and ranchers in the western United States are struggling with what to do about the burgeoning horse population in that part of the country. George Frey/Getty Images

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a $23.4 billion Interior Appropriations bill July 20 to fund parts of the EPA and programs to prevent wildfire damage and maintain public lands. But an amendment to the bill, added by Republican Congressman Chris Stewart, would also allow the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to perform painful and potentially lethal ovariectomies on America's wild horses.

Wild horse populations in the American West have increased at an unsustainable pace over the past few years, and droughts and wildfires have left the BLM struggling to find the resources to care for the approximately 67,000 mares living on public lands. An additional 15,000 burros brings the total wild horse population to 82,000—about 55,000 more horses than the environment can comfortably support.

Last year, Stewart proposed exterminating some of the population, but his amendment did not make it into the bill. His $15 million sterilization proposal for the 2019 bill, however, passed unanimously out of committee and went unopposed on the House floor. "The Secretary of the Interior may hereafter manage any group of wild horses or burros as a non-reproducing or single-sex herd, in whole or in part, including through chemical or surgical sterilization," it reads.

Ovariectomies, in which wild horses are gathered, given local anesthesia and have their ovaries removed, were called "inadvisable for field application" by the National Academies of Sciences in 2013, because of the high probability of "prolonged bleeding or peritoneal infection." The unsterile environment in which the procedures were likely to take place also significantly increased the chances of infection and death, Joanna Grossman, the equine protection manager at the Animal Welfare Institute, told Newsweek.

Grossman said surgical sterilization was unnecessary, mentioning the porcine zona pellucida (PZP) vaccine, which temporarily prevents fertility in horses: a safer, noninvasive and less costly option.

A spokesperson for Stewart said the language in his amendment was purposefully vague and allowed for any kind of sterilization deemed appropriate by the BLM. "The amendment, or the bill, specifically does not prescribe what methods should be used for sterilization," said Daryn Frischknecht, Stewart's communications director. "Representative Stewart's amendment provides legislative authority for the BLM to begin a sterilization program."

However, the amendment does cite surgical sterilization as an acceptable form of population control. The House bill will be reconciled with Senate's version, and it is possible that the amendment will be removed before a final version of the appropriations bill is approved, said Grossman.

Earlier this month, the BLM repealed a rule that restricted the number of wild horses the agency could round up and sell to buyers. The rule was originally put in place to prevent the sale of horses for slaughter.

Between 2008 and 2012, the BLM sold approximately 1,800 federally protected equines that ended up in the slaughter pipeline, according to the Department of Interior Office of Inspector General. The horses were sold for $10 each.

In response to the investigation, a waiting period was added to horse sales, and the number of horses available for sale at once was restricted from 25 to four. Grossman worried that ending those restrictions would lead to another increase in the sale of wild horses for slaughter. "These changes present serious danger and allow kill buyers to easily get these horses," she said.